About a month ago readers were outraged to learn about the hate campaign targeting women at the University of Waterloo. A good deal of my own shock came from a naive assumption–proven wrong on a regular basis, mind you–that the university is a bastion of enlightenment. Or at least a place that people come to work towards higher learning. But what does “higher learning” mean? According to he UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, “higher education” is education that “shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”
The term “higher learning” conjures two images for me, and they are both spatially-oriented. Firstly I imagine it as a place that facilitates the coming together of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences for the purpose of thinking in an open, discursive fashion. Secondly, I think of the 1995 film of the same name. If you haven’t seen it the film depicts a year in the lives of students at an unidentified American university. It didn’t shy away from depicting the insidious sides of a university. Rape, racism, homophobia, violence, and harassment were all depicted plainly. Not the subtlety required of great film making, perhaps, but the film made an impression on me. The spaces of higher learning need constant work, self-reflexivity, and care.
Still, the overwhelming and popular imagination (based on my experience and not research) is that the academy is a space of higher learning in the first sense. And when it isn’t working, it is–or should be–a place where due process is upheld, right?
Wrong. I admit I don’t generally keep track of what is happening at the Ivies, but the goings on at Yale over the past few weeks and, really, years, have caught my attention. Here’s a few highlights: In 2004 Naomi Wolf wrote an article for New York Magazine about her sexual harassment by the infamous H.B. While I certainly don’t agree with a lot of what Wolf writes, I am grateful for her very public consideration of what harassment did to her self confidence as a student. Just this past week the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights went public with its intent to open an investigation into Yale’s “its failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus, in violation of Title IX.” According to several news sources the legal complaint includes
The complaint includes personal accounts from five students, along with descriptions of these well-publicized incidents:
- Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” on campus in October 2010.
- A September 2009 “Preseason Scouting Report” email, which was written and circulated by a group of male students. The email ranked 53 freshman women in the order of how many beers it would take to have sex with them.
- Pledges from Zeta Psi surrounding the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center in January 2008 with signs that said “We Love Yale Sluts.”
- Fraternity members stealing t-shirts inscribed with accounts of sexual assaults from the Clothesline Project in 2005.
What can we learn about one example of what is clearly a decades-long failure at only one space for higher learning? We can keep lists, and for the record I mean all of us because women are by no means the only group subject to harassment and violence. Further, since Heather’s pithy post on the ways in which jargon obscures meaning I’ve found myself thinking about some of the terms that circulate in the academy. Some of the news articles circulating refer to the “alleged misogyny” that occurred on campus. Alleged? We can create space for frank dialogue about systemic injustice. Finally, though I hold on to the hope that the spaces and places of higher learning will become the ‘equally accessible’ spaces of rigorous intellectual exchange they can be–and often are–we need to take note of examples like the current issues happening south of the border, and remain mindful that there is still much work to be done for all of us.